A Memorable Trip To North Carolina

A Visit With a Special Individual

Leon Goldenberg - Hamodia USA - April 4, 2012 (Print Edition)

J4JP note: The visit described in this article took place January 23, 2012.

It is the end of January and I am flying down to the Raleigh-Durham airport and driving on to the small town of Butner, North Carolina. This is not a business trip or a pleasure excursion, but it is a trip I have been planning to make for a very long time. I am on my way to visit Jonathan Pollard in a Federal Correctional Complex, commonly referred to as prison.

I am not traveling alone. My travel companions include Congressman Bob Turner of the now-famous NY 9th District and Jonathan Schenker - the Congressman's Jewish liaison. Because we are traveling with the Congressman, we are allowed access to the prison on a Monday. Since we are a "special" visit, we are allowed in before regularly-scheduled daytime visiting hours. This turns out to work in our favor, because it allows us to spend quality time with Jonathan in a visitor's room that is empty except for us and the ever-present prison guard.

Let me explain a little bit about what it means to visit someone in prison. You don't just decide one day that this is somewhere you want to go. It takes weeks of planning. You have to put your name on a list of potential visitors and the inmate has to consent to your visit.

In Jonathan's case, it is different. There are normally two ways to request a visit, and usually someone who has no prior connection to Jonathan cannot just visit. One way is to be a part of a "special" visit - coordinated by his wife, or by his clergyman, Rabbi Pesach Lerner - or to be a part of a visit requested by a government official - in this case, Congressman Turner. Then you have to be thoroughly vetted by the Department of Justice.

It's difficult to understand what prison life is all about. It is completely different from life as we know it. When we enter the prison, we are told not to bring in anything besides a driver's license. Everything else, including our wallets, our cell phones, and our keys, must remain in the car.

We finally get to see Jonathan, who is waiting for us in the visitor's room. A guard is standing nearby and watching us throughout our visit, but it is difficult to determine whether he is listening in on our conversation - or if it is being recorded.

My first impression is that Jonathan looks well, all things considered. Here is a man who's been languishing in prison for 26 years, which is just about half his life. I expect to see someone who is filled with anger, frustration, and pain. He is calm and even tempered, and a pleasant host. There is a soft-spoken earnestness about him.

Jonathan is wearing prison clothes and has a full beard and yarmulke. He is intelligent and knowledgeable. He reads a lot and is quite aware of world events.

In his opening remarks to us, he clearly states that he knows he has committed a crime, and that he is remorseful. He explains the series of events that led to his decision to do what he did. But at this point it doesn't really matter. He feels that justice has been served and that his sentence should be commuted. Twenty-six years is certainly long enough. He is 57 years old and he is not well. He just wants to go home to Israel to be with his wife.

Life in prison is no picnic, but some of the rules and regulations seem truly horrifying. Because of his health issues, Jonathan is taking many medications on a daily basis for a variety of illnesses. But prison rules state that he cannot renew any prescriptions until his supply has completely run out. This means that he can go days, sometimes weeks, without vital medication as he is unable to re-order it in time. This is taking a serious toll on his physical well-being.

While we speak, I am struck by the loyalty and devotion of Jonathan's wife, Esther. She lives in Israel, but comes as often as she can to be with her husband. She is clearly as much of a prisoner as he is. As we speak with Jonathan, she visits the vending machine in the corner of the room with a bag of quarters - inmates are not allowed to handle money. She comes back with a few cans of soda, some Raisinettes and some chocolates - all kosher.

I watch in awe as she puts these items on the table in front of us. She forms a small cardboard tray out of the raisin box and fills it with the chocolates. I suddenly realize what she is doing. We are her guests and she is setting up a little sweet table for us. She is determined to perform the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim, even if it is in a cold and lonely visitor's room in a medium-security prison in the middle of North Carolina.

As inspiring as Jonathan is, Esther is equally amazing. She married Jonathan while he was in prison and has stood by his side for many years. She has never seen her husband outside the prison walls; they have never had a moment of privacy, yet she has dedicated her life to being there for him - both inside and outside of prison walls - as his advocate.

The Congressman, Jonathan Schenker and I spend about two hours with the Pollards and we discuss his plight at length. He knows, of course, of the glaring injustice of his sentence. He knows that no one else convicted of a similar crime has ever served a sentence even remotely as long as his. And he knows that a mysterious 46-page memo written by Caspar Weinberger prior to his sentencing is to blame for his predicament today.

Weinberger accused Jonathan of treason, a charge which is blatantly false. Jonathan's lawyers have been denied access to the memo for over two decades and they have asked for its release (through the courts and using FOIA - Freedom of Information Act) which, if all the rumors floating around are correct, will condemn him to life. The rumors vary from American agents in the Soviet Union being caught and killed to his transferring nuclear information to Pakistan. Numerous people, including Senator Chuck Schumer, claim that they saw the memo and that there is nothing in it that should keep Pollard in prison.

Jonathan said he saw the memo for a minute 27 years ago. "Would I be working so hard to get that memo released if I thought for a minute that it would harm me?" Pollard asks. "There is nothing in it that I am worried about. In it may lie the key to end this nightmare for good."

So Jonathan spends close to three decades in prison while the rest of the world marches on. It's enough to make me, a casual observer, want to cry out for justice. And yet here is a man who is remarkably cool, calm, and collected. He is also startlingly realistic about the chances of a commutation by President Obama.

His best hope for presidential commutation is political pressure by elected officials as well as the public at large. He is grateful to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for intervening on his behalf. He is also grateful to the two Chief Rabbis and members of Knesset who have tried to do the same. The list of politicians and dignitaries who recognize the injustice and are trying to help him keeps growing longer and longer.

Today, Congressman Turner is visibly moved by his predicament and will no doubt intercede as well. In fact, he has already written a letter to President Obama and spoken out on the Dov Hikind radio show recently, declaring in no uncertain terms that enough is enough.

Jonathan will always remember ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner as being among the first to take up his cause and consistently work toward Jonathan's release.

What can we, the average citizen, do to help? We must first cry out to the heavens for Hakadosh Baruch Hu to intervene, as only He has the ultimate power to rescue Jonathan from his plight. Subsequently, we must raise funds on the local grassroots level throughout our communities to place ads in national newspapers and garner national attention for his cause - or, better put - for our cause.

Jonathan says he has no personal vendetta against anyone and is looking forward to anonymity. He is not interested in cashing in on his fame by lecturing, giving interviews, or writing a memoir. He wants to move to Israel one day soon and put the past behind him. He wants to live a quiet life with his wife Esther, and his wife Esther wants to live a quiet life with Jonathan.

I can daven for, and envision, a day in the near future when a neighbor will visit the Pollards and Esther will serve some Raisinettes and soda. Only this time they'll be doing so in the comfort of their own home - home in Israel, at last.

  • See Also: Images of original article: First page - Second page